Friday, April 20, 2007

Separation Anxiety

A piece in the International Herald Tribune on the relationship between church and state. Rather, the idea that the grassroots reality isn't as polarized between as "religious" and a "secular" sphere as some might suggest. It casts proponents of religion (represented by Pope Benedict XVI) and strict secularism (Jürgen Habermas) as extremeists, woefully cluless about the reality on the ground where faith-based initiatives do a variety of wonderful things that promote civil society.
Chan Jamoona of Trinidad, a trained nurse, is the founder of a Hindu Senior Center in Queens. Jamoona worked for years as a community organizer with Christians, Muslims, and Jews to combat racism and unfair housing, and, more recently, to create a senior center for a growing Hindu community. She understands her work to be "as a citizen and as a Hindu."

These are examples of how religious communities foster civil society. Religious identity propels these people to social action. They help insure that America's public sphere is religiously, culturally, and politically diverse. Each provides a community service that extends to other religions. They are not engaged in public dialogue about norms in the way that advocates for public religion and strict secularism are. And this is precisely the point. In fact, outside of the academy, seminaries, and a few dialogue groups, religious communities interact with one another and with secular partners over issues of common concern.
And all this happens, "under the noses of conservative Christians and secularists." (Presumably the adjective qualifies only the former and not the latter.) How blind all of these people concerned with principles and theory are!

Are they really? I can't speak for the "secular side" -- but read anything about dialogue, from Vatican II, to Pope John Paul and yes even Pope Benedict. Nothing that they say about principles (and really, it's quite inaccurate that Pope Benedict "calls for a reassertion of Roman Catholicism's central place in our moral compass." He's talked more about a need to recall and reinvestigate the roots of modernity, which lie in Christianity (not just Catholicism), and to bring these norms into the public sphere, especially in post-Christian Europe) suggests that the kinds of faith-based initiative the author praises are somehow dangerous or proscribed. Au contraire. All things that I'm familiar with talk about a dialogue that also involves the coming together of people of different perspectives to work for the common good, for justice and peace. So, for example:
With great respect, therefore, this council regards all the true, good and just elements inherent in the very wide variety of institutions which the human race has established for itself and constantly continues to establish. The council affirms, moreover, that the Church is willing to assist and promote all these institutions to the extent that such a service depends on her and can be associated with her mission. She has no fiercer desire than that in pursuit of the welfare of all she may be able to develop herself freely under any kind of government which grants recognition to the basic rights of person and family, to the demands of the common good and to the free exercise of her own mission. (Gaudium et Spes, #42. Vatican II)
The Church and the political community in their own fields are autonomous and independent from each other. Yet both, under different titles, are devoted to the personal and social vocation of the same men. The more that both foster sounder cooperation between themselves with due consideration for the circumstances of time and place, the more effective will their service be exercised for the good of all. For man's horizons are not limited only to the temporal order; while living in the context of human history, he preserves intact his eternal vocation. The Church, for her part, founded on the love of the Redeemer, contributes toward the reign of justice and charity within the borders of a nation and between nations. By preaching the truths of the Gospel, and bringing to bear on all fields of human endeavor the light of her doctrine and of a Christian witness, she respects and fosters the political freedom and responsibility of citizens. (Gaudium et Spes, #73. Vatican II)
Then there's that whole body of literature on Catholic social teaching, the immense amount of work that Catholic parishes, the USCCB and others Catholic organizations (Catholic Worker anyone?) do in the social sphere. It's a bit clueless to suggest that the Pope is completely cluless about all this!

The author (who works at the Interfaith Center in New York and is a doctoral candidate at Union Theological Seminary) seems also to think that "conservative Christians" are not involved in initiatives that work with wider areas of civic society, which is a crock really.

There's some discussion of the different trajectories that secualarism has taken in America versus Europe -- the American model is (rightly) praised. But there are serious concerns that the European model might be gaining the upper hand in America -- or at least there are concerns about these in "conservative" circles.

The guiding argument seems to be: let the "extremists" worry about such irrelevant things such as principles and boundaries and theories. If they got a clue, they'd see that on the ground such things don't matter. Well, they do matter. Tremendously But this doesn't mean that the kinds of initiatives he (rightfully) praises are somehow mutually exclusive to a serious dialogue about the proper place of religion in society, or that the latter simply involves battening down the hatches and drawing lines in the sand. In other words, he's set up a straw man that can then be easily demolished in service of another modern canard: that orthopraxis is what ultimately matters, orthodoxy is merely oppressive.

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